THE DANCE WEARS THIN

V

These hands were not meant to give love.

The words echoed restlessly in Catherine's mind as she sat alone in her bedroom, drawing a brush through her hair. It was very late - Vincent had left almost two hours ago - but sleep had proved elusive.

He had come to her tonight with shame in his eyes and hurt in his heart, weeping on the balcony - their balcony - for what he was: someone who could draw blood with a caress.

These hands were not meant to give love.

With each stroke of the brush, that phrase came to her again; memory refused to let it go. Catherine hoped very much that Vincent could not sense this preoccupation. She didn't know at what point empathy slipped over into telepathy, but this broken record thinking, mixed as it was with a sort of despairing helplessness, couldn't possibly help Vincent's peace of mind.

Catherine had wept also. As sorry as she felt for the earnest adolescent he'd been, caught up in the whirlwind of his first crush, it was the man she sorrowed for now. An unfortunate mishap - and didn't most teens have at least one painful stumble on the road to adulthood? - had been blown so tragically out of proportion.

These hands were not meant to give love.

She had held his hands, kissed them, wishing desperately that he would feel her love, her acceptance. Not just feel them, but believe in them. But his most secret reservoirs of pain and guilt had spilt over into her through their bond, Vincent helpless to hold back the tide. The depth of his self-loathing staggered her. She had had some inkling, but Vincent usually kept so much of his darkness apart from her; it was rare for him to allow such naked vulnerability to erode his self-control.

Vincent's reluctance to reveal himself disturbed her. If this was love, of the best kind - and Catherine knew it was, with every fibre of her being - then shouldn't it be able to absorb the darkness and make something better of it, something brighter? All too often Vincent kept his ever-present shadows so deep in the background of their lives, where she wouldn't be able to see or touch them. He wrapped himself in the protective cloak of poet, teacher, healer, carer, and all the while his innermost core, his most basic element - the will and ability to strike out against that which threatened his loved ones - remained exiled.

Catherine wondered why he kept it hidden so. Was it for fear of losing her...or losing himself? He was a being of such impossible contradictions. Didn't he grow exhausted trying to reconcile them all, trying to exist only as this white knight he thought she could love, while the dark warrior was left to howl alone in the gloom?

These hands were not meant to give love.

How could she make Vincent understand that the only way he could truly hurt her was by turning away? Her need for him was bone-deep; she craved him as she craved oxygen, with an imperative, unthinking ardour. How could he turn from this need? Withhold his very essence? What did she care for scratches, if he was to inflict upon her the far deeper wound of his denial? Was she to let the memory of a silly, self-absorbed girl come between them? Couldn't he see that what they had was no teenage infatuation, but a deep, real love...one that would not be thwarted by obstacles? Catherine refused to be compared to Lisa; she wouldn't let her memory sabotage them. God, if Lisa was the reason for so much of Vincent's physical reticence, she'd scratch the woman herself.

Catherine grimaced at this savage turn in her thoughts, knowing it was both unworthy and unfair. Lisa had been the unconscious cipher for an adolescent's desire, and shouldn't really be held accountable for Vincent's self-punishment; his spirit would have always reached out to Lisa's in vain. Catherine saw Lisa as a person of deep, abiding passion, but that passion seemed reserved for dance alone. It did not embrace the people around her; they served only as an adoring audience or cold critics. Catherine could admire Lisa's dedication, but not when it flowered at the expense of all other feeling.

Had part of Lisa's appeal for a teenaged Vincent been her indifference to his appearance? At an age when his differences would have been growing painfully apparent, Lisa had continued to dance and dream with him. Yet Catherine suspected that Lisa's indifference had been born largely of self-absorption rather than acceptance or love. Vincent had told her once that his brother Devin had been the only one to dream dreams that included him. Lisa's dreams had probably filled a void left by Devin's disappearance. But Lisa had been dreaming - dancing - for herself alone.

Vincent had left shortly after their painful discussion on the balcony, tears still damp on his face. She wondered where he was, if he was alright. She knew he needed time apart, time to think - and to brood. She could only hope that she had reached him in some small way tonight.

As for herself...well, it was probably going to be a long night. A leisurely soak in the bath had failed to stem her restlessness, and she'd tried in vain to sleep. The balcony door was ajar - in the wistful hope that Vincent might return? - and the March air felt cool on her bare feet. She was seated in front of a Victorian dressing table that had belonged to her mother; a beautiful piece of workmanship, it consisted of a half-circle table of richest mahogany, crowned with an adjustable oval mirror surrounded by Gothic detail. It was one of the few things she had brought from her father's home after his recent death.

Catherine considered her reflection in the mirror, comparing herself to Lisa's dark perfection. The contrast did not disturb her. Her cheeks were fresh-scrubbed and rosy from the bath, and her hair crackled beneath the brush. Several votive candles kept the darkness at bay, and their flames picked out her golden highlights, whilst the blue satin lining of her dressing gown brought out the grey in her eyes. In looks, Catherine would always be her father's daughter, but in this mirror she could find a certain maternal resemblance that was both strange and comforting.

Her reflection reminded her just how long her hair had grown the last year or so, as work obligations swallowed her daylight hours. Jenny had sat her down in exasperation recently and snipped off her split ends; she'd threatened a manicure too, but had let Catherine off with a stern warning. Even in the soft, candlelit glow, Catherine could see that her nails were somewhat ragged, and she took up her emery board to smooth them. When had she ever found time for these grooming rituals? It wasn't so long ago that she would have been at a salon each week, and she certainly wouldn't have been caught dead with anything less than perfect nails. It mystified her now, that woman she'd been...the time wasted. The advent of Vincent in her life had largely freed her from her slavish devotion to 'fashion law'; apart from some understandable lapses - most notably her continuing weakness for pretty dressing gowns - it was enough nowadays to be neat and presentable. She had more important things to do.

Like sleeping. But she felt more wide awake than ever. Whatever calming influence the bath had had was gone. Filing her nails was normally a pleasant, mind-numbing task, but looking down at her hands, it was impossible not to think of Vincent's.

These hands were not meant to give love.

The soft, golden hair. Calloused palms. Long fingers, so incredibly strong. And his fingernails: talons of fatal sharpness. She had felt their keenly honed coolness against the soft skin of her face earlier when she had kissed them. His hands - the possibilities - terrified him, she knew, but they were her hands now. She had claimed them as a lover's right.

But they were not yet lovers, and might never be if he allowed fear to rule him. It hurt her to think that she might never feel his hands on her body, where they belonged. She was so weary with waiting; it only got harder as time went by. This dance was wearing thin. In recent times - particularly since she had come to terms with the loss of her mother - they had been growing so much closer. But it took very little to disturb the delicate balance between contentment and frustration.

She couldn't even attribute all the side-stepping in their relationship to Vincent, for hadn't she vacillated wildly in the wake of her father's death? Claiming a place Below - and for all Vincent's soothing neutrality, hadn't she sensed beneath it a reckless exaltation, a possessiveness even, that she should give herself up to his care? - and then turning away from it all, because it would have been for the wrong reasons. A balm for her grief and loneliness - '...too rash, too unadvis'd...' - and the healing process had ended up hurting him. And now this mess with Lisa...

Catherine shook her head ruefully. To think she had the gall to mentally accuse Lisa of self-absorption, when right now she was by far the worse offender. This self-pity sickened her. If Vincent had taught her anything, it was to be strong. That meant accepting whatever he had to give as the gift it was, rather than despairing over what he held back. But it was just so hard sometimes. If he followed past patterns - and she had little cause to believe he wouldn't - then he would stay far away from her after this present setback, returning only if she needed him.

And what was need, anyhow? Was it just the threat of physical harm, being attacked by some nameless gang of thugs...poor, if necessary, excuse to see him? Or was it that itchy sensation beneath her skin, the throbbing deep inside her that daily grew harder to ignore? Would he even recognize that as legitimate need, every bit as frantic as the peril she was so often placed in? She had every reason to believe he was completely inexperienced. It didn't bother her...actually, it pleased her in a possessive way that probably did her little credit but she honestly couldn't help. Perhaps he couldn't recognize how close she was coming to the burning point - though a tell-tale smolder kindled his own eyes each time they met. She'd kept her every physical impulse smothered for so long now that she was about to come apart from the strain. Strange to feel this way when she'd never really known desire or love before. When the real thing had come along in the previously unimaginable shape of Vincent, she'd seen her prior relationships for what they were...essentially nothing. Not even practice, just a sort of playacting at grownups, born either of rebellion or resignation. She wouldn't belittle what she had with Vincent by comparing it to anything she'd known before.

Love. An everyday tenderness and understanding jumbled haphazardly, inescapably, with this primeval yearning. companionship, both desired and required. Rapture at the sound of his voice. Helpless melting in his arms. Tense readiness...molten emptiness. And oh, the frustration, as he turned away from her again and again. A wry smile quivered on her lips; mostly what she felt was acceptance, for she wouldn't have him other than he was. A harsh taskmaster, this love, and she would never let it go...never let him go.

Her thoughts returned fleetingly to Lisa and how she'd appeared on the stage, her body forming an elegant arabesque. A perilous, painful balance; one arm extended forwards, the other back, teetering on the razor's edge of will. Vincent had learnt that dance all too well.

Catherine blew lightly on her nails, her comfort in the ritual shaken by the rising tide of craving that seemed to scream beneath her skin. Even the touch of her own breath ignited a wanting. She hadn't touched herself in a very long time, hating the thought of causing Vincent that sort of discomfort. The intimacy they shared did not disturb her - she loved that he knew so much of her - but she could not lay hands upon herself without dreaming that they were his, and he was sure to sense her covetousness, and interpret it...how? As rebuke for neglectfulness? Coercion to further intimacy? She shook her head at her own frailty. The last thing she wanted was to push Vincent into anything he wasn't ready for, but oh, this selfish hunger was hard to quell. She'd had so much practice, yet she grew weaker by the hour.

Her hands moved of their own accord to her robe, stroking the satin-smooth lining that covered her breasts. The sky blue material  felt exquisite against her sensitised fingertips; her gaze followed the movement in the mirror, and she was unavoidably reminded of Vincent's beautiful blue eyes...could almost feel them on her. Her hands moved restlessly down to untie the belt, and with a sinuous sway of her shoulders, the garment fell from her body to drape over the seat. Without the blue against her face, her grey eyes reverted to green with chameleon dexterity.

Her nightgown was a silken delicacy of ivory, its bodice decorated with a fanciful arabesque of intertwining leaves. Beneath the gown, her skin shifted fretfully. Waiting.

******************

As he watched Catherine through the airy material of her curtains, Vincent thought she looked like a bride. The sheers were drawn like a veil, thin as mist and dancing with delicate grace in the breeze. The open door felt like an invitation.

For several hours he had stalked impotently around the Park, trying to rein in the emotions that filled him. Had he made himself clear to Catherine earlier? Not so much about Lisa - that was ancient history - but about himself, and what he was. About the recklessness of his desire...the compulsion. Hands that could not let go. He'd spoken of Lisa, because that was easier than what was left unsaid...the strength of Catherine's pull, a thousand times harder to deny, for it was a tangible thing: the true call of a mate.

He couldn't help but think that the strength of his point had somehow been diminished by Catherine's sweet touch, her empathy. He was hard-pressed to gather his thoughts even now, and he'd had hours to regroup. Without tears to blind him, he could see Catherine all too clearly; without roiling pain blurring their bond, he could sense her longing. Since he'd left her earlier, he'd felt a calm descend over her that he'd come to associate with her at bath; it was a tranquillity he'd always savoured, and he had often timed his baths to coincide with hers. But her mood had shifted, stormy and wistful in turn, and there was an underlying physical sensation that made his fur stand on end. He knew well what this augured, for he would be afflicted in kind: a night of broken sleep as every attempt to flog feeling into submission failed. He knew that Catherine tried so valiantly to hide this from him, but she couldn't control her dreams...and she dared to dream dreams that included him.

Vincent was tired of dreams. A dream was a teasing shadow, a touch never felt. The flesh required so much more.

Normally such a dangerous thought would send him deep Below. Tonight...tonight he could not distance himself from her. Futile wheeling about the Park had brought him back to her building, again and again. Now he was on the balcony once more, unable to ignore her unconscious summons. He thought of alerting her - he'd found that the tap of his claws on the glass could draw her attention from even the deepest sleep - but the tableau she presented was compelling and lovely, and he was loathe to
disturb it.

Instead he brushed aside the sheers and stepped inside her bedroom. Immediately her scent surrounded him; it was strongest here where she slept, and for that reason more than any other he had always avoided this place. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, and when he opened them again, she had swung her head around to meet his gaze.

"Vincent," she whispered, as a smile broke across her face. He saw that she was about to stand and come to him, and he motioned her to remain seated.

"Catherine. You...you called," he said softly. "You needed me."

Her head tilted in bewilderment, causing her hair to wash across one bare shoulder. She shivered visibly at the touch, and when her eyes returned to her mirror image, they filled quickly with comprehension. She looked again to where he stood near the doorway. "Yes, I need you," she said with soft intensity.

Present tense. An apt description of the current state of his mind...and body. Having breached this threshold, he now felt paralysed by indecision. She stretched forth one hand across the distance between them and nodded encouragingly. "You can do it," she said.

It reminded him of the first time he had led her home, coaxing her across a dark rift in a forgotten subway tunnel. He had known then, as she knew now...you have the strength...I know you. He stepped forward to take her hand, and when their fingers touched the surrounding candles seemed to flicker and pulse.

Catherine drew him into the shimmering circle of light, admiring the fiery reflection in his mane. She started to shift over on her seat to make room for him there, but he moved behind her instead, looming like a shadow. When she looked in the mirror once more, all she could see of him was his left hand clasped in hers, resting against her collarbone. She leant back, just a
little, and his belt buckle caught her hair, making her quiver.

She couldn't see him without craning her head back, so she looked directly at her reflection instead, knowing that he would find her there. If she tilted the mirror he would come into view, but she didn't want to shatter this moment. Had he ever really seen himself in a mirror? She'd seen a few old looking-glasses Below, but there was no such thing in Vincent's chamber; her first glimpse of her ruined face - and of Vincent - had been in the dented metal of an old car headlamp.

He reached around her with his right arm to stroke a carved rose on the mirror's mount. "This dressing table..."

She smiled beneath the shadowy shelter of his body. "Beautiful, isn't it?"

His hair brushed over her cheek as he nodded. "It was your mother's." There was no question in the statement, and his perceptiveness pleased her. He knew her so well.

"Yes. Marilyn helped me wrestle it out of Dad's place today." She chuckled at the memory. "Two women against the most recalcitrant piece of furniture ever made. It was hard work, but we just didn't want to hire anyone to do it." His hair brushed over her face again in silent understanding. "I wanted to show you earlier, but..."

But he'd been tearing himself apart in anguish. Vincent straightened as he recalled the turmoil that had sent him running from her tonight, and the compulsion that had brought him back. He'd entered her bedroom without ceremony...and it was alright, he thought, with a sort of bewildered wonder. The world hadn't come to an end, the heavens hadn't been thrown off-kilter. He hadn't transformed into some rabid monster, bent on rending her limb from limb. She'd taken his hand, and doubt had dissipated.

Even the mirror didn't disturb him much, though he'd shied away from them all his life. The wistful gladness it evoked in Catherine was infectious. Her eyes in the glass seemed deep and far-seeing, and when he closed his own eyes to see what she saw he found a face like Catherine's, not in feature, but in expression: a perfect memory of love. He opened his eyes again and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "She was...lovely. Thank you for sharing her with me."

"No, Vincent. Thank you." She sighed, running her free hand across the mahogany. "It doesn't exactly fit my decor, but I still wanted to try it out. I remember watching Mom perform all her beauty rituals at this dressing table. These wonderful mysteries involving lipstick and orangewood sticks and atomisers… I could hardly wait to grow up. And she'd sit me down in front of this mirror every day to comb my hair."

"You have her hair." Its tell-tale crackle told of a recent brushing; his fingers itched to soothe it. His left hand was still captured in hers, so he brought the other up to rest briefly atop her head before he started drawing his fingers through her hair. His claws raked through the soft strands more efficiently than any comb. Summer would be upon them within a few months, and he looked forward to seeing the change of season in her sun-hungry hair.

He caught a flare of purest pleasure in her eyes before they closed, and her grip on his hand relaxed. Watching the slow progress of her fingertips down the length of her torso to her lap, he savoured the spectre of sensation along his own flesh. Her reflected image effected a peculiar doubling of his intuition, whilst giving him a sense of safe distance at the same time; he was there, but…not.

Both his hands were free to touch her now. He varied the contact, stroking her hair with his bare palms, then turning his hands to catch the strands in his fur. Her head lolled in his gentle grasp, following wherever his hands led. She wore an almost beatific smile, but a faint glimpse of teeth at the corner of her mouth spoke of sensual hunger, and his own teeth clenched in response.

The feeling of dissociation provided by the mirror was fading in the face of shared desire. He shut his eyes against that devastating smile and discovered behind his eyelids a vision of even greater intimacy in which his hands covered her bare flesh. It was difficult to tell from whom this fantasy emanated. He longed to make it real. A faint murmur of her voice reached him, heard more in his heart than in his ears, and the words were... my hands.

Catherine's eyes drifted open as she felt his fingers trace the curve of her restless mouth. She thought for a moment that it was a denial, a gentle attempt to silence her hunger, but instead the sharp tip of his middle finger insinuated itself between her lips. She clasped his fingertip carefully in her mouth, cherishing the dual sensations of fur against her top lip and callous beneath. It was strange to watch herself through the mask of his hand; he covered her face from the brush of his thumb along her ridged scar to the prop of his smallest finger beneath her chin.

His right hand was still caught in her hair, resting at her nape where she could see honeyed locks spilling between his knuckles, and it gave her an enticing sense of defenselessness to be held so. He pulled at her gently, coaxing her head backwards against him until she could just glimpse the tangled fall of his fringe above her. It left the arch of her throat vulnerable.

He drew his finger from her reluctant mouth and ran his hand down the length of her neck, a featherstroke that made her swallow hard in response. He dipped his moist fingertip into the hollow at the base of her throat, then followed the line of her collarbone from one side of her body to the other. Her nightgown was supported by two delicate straps which he touched with a visible tremor, and she waited breathlessly for him to ease them away from her body. Instead he honoured the frail bounds and laid his hand flat upon her chest, where her heart quickened.

"Oh, please," she whispered, nudging his sleeve with her flushed cheek. She could see her breasts swelling and lifting for the touch of his hand, just beyond reach.

Tendrils of hair pulled uncomfortably at her nape with each anxious movement of her head, but she felt him loose his grip before she experienced any real discomfort. With a soft shh he brushed his knuckles over her ear before resting his palm across her brow, and her fretful motion stilled.

With one hand at her head and the other above her heart, he made her feel almost docile, although she could hear the uneven hitch in his own breathing even as he gentled her. Yet when the touch came - a tender cupping of her left breast, his palm hot through the cool silk - she felt strangely unprepared and sucked in a startled breath. The convulsive rise of her chest arched her firmly against his splayed fingers, which clenched in reflex. They both felt the resulting pierce of pain.

These hands were not meant to give love.

Vincent's eyes flew open at the shock of it. He yanked his hands from her and reeled backwards, watching her reflection in horror as carmine stained the bodice of her nightgown. She started to sway a little at the abrupt removal of his body's support, and he returned to her back with a low moan of distress. He couldn't think what to do with his hands - these hands - and they hovered ineffectually above her shoulders. He could see her following their shaky progress in the mirror, but when she reached up to take them in her own, her silk-clad breasts raised to give him a clear view of four red rose petals falling from the bud of her nipple.

It was too much. One long, desperate lunge took him to her balcony door, even as he cursed himself for a coward. But a shifting breeze floated the sheers about him like a net, and she was standing behind him before he could untangle himself. Calling his name.

"Let me go," he said, a desolate plea. He dropped his brow against the door frame, unable to face her.

"Don't!" she said, her voice soft but insistent.

"Don't..."

"Don't go. And don't cry." He felt it then, the hard pressure behind his eyes. "I couldn't bear it if you cried."

Her resolve was palpable, giving him the strength to turn. She stood before him, looking small and fragile in her nightgown and bare feet. With the light behind her now, the bloodstains were dark as damson. The scent was still unmistakable.

"You should sit, Catherine. You're...hurt."

"I'm alright. It's forgotten." His disbelief must have been all too apparent, for she sighed and shook her head. "Feel me, Vincent. You'll see. I wouldn't lie to you."

He closed his eyes to her and let a stillness creep over him. Immediately he felt himself a part of her, and found that she spoke the truth: deep beneath a yearning, all-encompassing ache, the pain was already a memory. But he would remember. "Catherine, did you know it's supposed to be bad luck to look in a mirror by candlelight? Something...uncanny...might appear behind you."

She huffed in such exasperation that he might have smiled, but for his misery. "You're the one who should sit, Vincent." She took hold of his cloak, drawing him towards her as the sheers released their tenacious grip. He soon found himself on the seat she'd just vacated, as she fiddled with the ties on his cloak. The swiftness of her actions left him dizzy, and he gasped when she knelt between his thighs to tug insistently at his cloak. The heavy garment yielded to her demands, falling over the seat to cover her own discarded robe.

His hands rested at his sides, captured in the folds of the cloak; he made no effort to release them. Tenderness and wanting, misery and guilt warred within him, and his hands felt both penitent and rebellious beneath their confines, as though they might push her away or pull her closer...might do anything at all if but given half the chance. It seemed wrong that she should be kneeling before him like this when his first instinct was to lay at her feet and beg forgiveness...beg for anything she had to give. But somewhere deep below the repentance, a dark part of him rejoiced to see her vulnerable before him and yearned to draw her forward and press her hard to his body. He forced his gaze from hers, only to find his own tortured visage in the mirror.

"Vincent? What do you see?" Her tone was gentle and curious, and he could feel her fingers searching for his beneath the cloak. His hands formed fists, resisting her touch, and his eyes in the mirror were filled with self-condemnation and a soul-deep weariness. Was he doomed to imprisonment by cliches like 'you always hurt the one you love'? Why did such a hackneyed idea have to have such wretchedly accurate bearing on his own life? Never had the unfairness, the loneliness, the awful tragedy of his 'uncanny' form pierced him so painfully as it did now. The woman he loved with all his being was so close and so completely untouchable. He was almost glad of the cloak's restraints, for the urge to pound these murderous hands against the glass and shatter his reflection was hard to resist.

"I see...I don't know what I see," he said finally, and the hopelessness in his own voice frightened him. "What is it that you see, Catherine?"

"I see a person who makes me happier than I've ever been in my entire life." His eyes dropped from the persecution of his own reflection to meet her earnest gaze. Her face was the kinder mirror by far. "And I see someone who makes me sad, too. Am I forcing you to face things you're not ready for?"

"No. I've been hiding for so long, and that's the act of a coward. You make me want to be a better person than that. But Catherine..." The shame of the confession made his voice almost inaudible, but he forced himself to say it. "I will hurt you."

She shook her head, rocking back and forth on her haunches as though uncertain of her welcome. He still could not bring himself to take her entreating hands, but he could sense a firm unwillingness in her to allow any distance between them; her fingers crept behind his knees and anchored themselves there, the intimate contact making him tremble. "I don't know how I can make you understand, Vincent. Real hurt...it's vicious, and spiteful. Mostly it's deliberate. But sometimes…sometimes it's completely thoughtless. That's the worst of all, because you know you don't count." He thought of Lisa, of the strange blank page she'd become, and wondered if her bad marriage had made her like that, or whether she'd been that way all along. He'd been wild for understanding, for forgiveness, for anything at all...but there'd been nothing in her that could respond to him, just a vague fear...as if she'd never understood him at all. "Hurt is someone who ignores you, or possesses you, or plays with you. Someone who takes everything and shares nothing. And that's got nothing to do with us, Vincent, I swear it. This..." She gestured towards her breast. Kneeling as close as she was, he could not see the bloody marks he'd made, and didn't know whether to feel sorry for it or glad. "This doesn't matter. This is a hurt we can deal with, together, if only you'll allow us."

Allow us. Catherine heard the pleading note in her voice, and fell silent; there was no point pushing him towards love. Her right hand rested upon her chest as if to calm her yearning heart, and the moment seemed to drag on and on, an almost endless suspension of time as she awaited his decision. Finally her hand moved to rejoin its mate at his knees, but found his own hand instead as he shook off the confines of the cloak.

"Then we'll deal with it, Catherine." He curled his fingers about hers so gently she could have cried, and she could not resist drawing him to her lips and pressing a fervent kiss to the back of his palm. It felt better than a reprieve, better than a triumph; deep within her she could sense his self-imposed penance lifting, and what lay beneath felt like...love.

She closed her eyes and rubbed her cheek against his fur, taking warm comfort in the contact. When she opened her eyes at last, the sick torment had left his face; he was watching her with an expression of such gladness that she wanted to turn his face towards the mirror and prove to him just how beautiful he was.

Instead she leant back and considered the fingers she held. There were small traces of blood - her blood - drying on the tips of his claws. There was no use denying they had a problem here, but it wasn't insurmountable. She trusted him implicitly, but he needed to learn trust in himself, and that would take time. In the meantime, they had to be practical. One step at a time. And if she decided to make it a big step...

She smiled before taking his index finger in her mouth, holding him still between her teeth whilst she suckled delicately at his claw. The salty taste that she had learnt earlier now mingled with the faint metallic flavour of her own blood, and the blend felt like a visceral emblem of their bond. She still had a hand behind one of his knees, and savoured the sudden bunching of his muscles in her grip, knowing she was the cause. But he made not a sound as she lapped at each blooded finger in turn, even when the tip of his middle finger pierced the fleshy surface of her tongue. She simply gave him a gentle bite and continued her ministrations, and he gave in to her.

Finally she released his fingers and smiled up into his face, which was dazed with sensual pleasure. She felt intoxicated herself, unable to make an articulate sound, and was astonished when he suddenly spoke.

"Catherine, your knees are getting sore."

She blinked at the seeming incongruity of his remark. Taking mental stock of herself, she discovered that he was perfectly correct: somewhere deep beneath the smouldering arousal…her knees were getting chafed.

Confronted with this most recent demonstration that he knew her better than she knew herself, she couldn't help but chuckle. It didn't seem fair that he could so effortlessly shake off the spell she was weaving, and yet it wasn't as though she could accuse him of inattention, since it was quite the opposite. Bracing herself against his own knees, she stood up with a creak.

His hands rose to steady her, shaking visibly against her hips, and she was pleased to discover that he wasn't immune after all. She followed the nervous dance of his eyes up and down the length of her body as they searched out some safe place to alight, but from her heated eyes to her clenching toes, she felt anything but safe. His eyes shied from her bloodstained bodice to concentrate on her knees, which peeped out from beneath the hem of her nightgown. His hands stroked down her thighs to massage the bare skin chafed by the carpet, and she swayed before him, fighting the temptation to press closer.

Eventually she pulled back a little, and was elated to watch his hands follow her retreat as though they might keep her still. She looked pointedly at the seat, which she saw now would not accommodate the two of them side by side, and asked, "Will you hold me then?"

Vincent's eyes flew from her knees to meet her siren's gaze, scant moments before he found her draped across his lap, nestled into the curve of his right arm. The momentum forced him to face the mirror squarely, and he gasped at the unprecedented sight of them together, wrapped in each other's embrace. She draped an arm around his shoulders, and he watched, mesmerised, as she nuzzled her face down into his mane.

"I'm not too heavy, am I?" she asked, the words whispering through his hair.

"No." She was perfect. Given the opportunity, he'd happily carry her in his arms forever. Nothing had ever made him feel so content as her touch.

Her head turned, nudging into the crook of his shoulder until she was facing the mirror also. She looked at their reflection with quiet intensity, a smile slowly filling her face. "They look good together, don't they?"

Framed with candlelight and roses. "Yes. They look...right." Strange to think he'd never really imagined the picture they presented. But there was intimacy there, and a bone-deep belonging. It was unexpected and beautiful.

She reached for his left hand, with which he'd been stroking her sore knees. Although her blood had been licked clean, the claws looked no less savage against her small palm. "Vincent?" He sensed her hesitance, though her voice was calm. "Do you ever cut them?"

He rubbed his cheek gently along her collarbone, trying to reassure her without words that the topic was safe. "Not anymore. Mary tried, when I was small." He snorted softly at a long ago memory. "Father was understanding about the clothes and the furniture. But when I accidentally shredded his old 'Gray's Anatomy', he said enough was enough...the nails had to go."

Seeing that he was easy with the subject, she raised her eyebrows curiously. "And?"

"It was a lost cause, I'm afraid. Each evening, he'd attack them with surgical precision. And by morning they were back, usually longer and sharper than before. It drove him mad."

This made her laugh, a delicious vibration in his hair. "Oh, I can imagine. How old were you?"

"Four."

"So young for such insubordination!"

"Mm. And I was normally such an amenable child."

She pressed the softest of kisses to his brow. "Something tells me you've always had Father wrapped firmly around your finger."

He sighed, thinking of Father's stubbornness regarding all the important aspects of his son's life...particularly Catherine. "Sometimes."

"What did Devin think of it all?"

"Oh, he'd study me for hours throughout the night; he thought it was a wonderful game. But I was the proverbial watched pot."

"And you think Father's stubborn," she said, squeezing his hand.

"I outlasted him on that issue, anyhow." As he would outlast him on the issue of Catherine. Some things were too important. "The 'Gray's' never did tell me anything useful about myself."

Though he left the words unspoken, she could imagine quite clearly the image of a small boy just beginning to realise the difference between himself and all those around him. She sat back until she was looking directly into his eyes. "Vincent, whatever 'Gray's' didn't tell you, we'll find out for ourselves."

He still looked a little uncertain, shying from her eyes to press his brow against her shoulder. He made no attempt to take back his hand however, and she accepted his stillness as permission, pressing his fingers gratefully. "You know, there is no part of me that doesn't want to be held by you," she whispered.

"I want that too, Catherine." Even had his voice not been hoarse with want, his arousal was unmistakable.

"But you're scared." She took her hand from around his shoulders to cradle his cheek, forcing his eyes to meet hers once again. "And our bond won't allow me to ignore your fear. So we'll compromise."

Reluctant to give up the cherished seat on his lap, she released his hand and reached gingerly for one of the small dresser drawers, relishing his sigh as she shifted across his thighs. After a short rummage, she found the large pair of nail clippers she'd thrown in just that afternoon with all the other toiletries. She caught him watching in the mirror and smiled, brandishing her find. "Never been used, would you believe? I almost threw them out earlier, but my inner pack rat wouldn't let me."

"Mouse would be proud of you," he said, trying, like her, to sound nonchalant about this when he felt anything but. It was impossible to feign composure when they both understood what she was about to do...the inducement to intimacy. Beneath her smile he sensed her uncertainty, and hardly knew whether to feel relieved or devastated. "Catherine...you don't have to do this if you don't want to."

"But I do!" She seemed genuinely surprised by his acquittal, and sat back against him so quickly that she must have feared he was going to tip her off. Releasing her was the very last thing he wanted, but if she having second thoughts, then he would somehow find the strength to relinquish this chance for joy.

"Catherine..."

She pressed a finger to his lips, and he fell silent. "Did I seem anxious? Because I'm not, truly. It's just that this feels like I'm...punishing you, or something. Putting restrictions in place. And I don't want you to get the wrong impression." The pad of her finger crept into his cleft, stroking the slick flesh in unconscious suggestion. "It's my fondest wish that you could just feel free with me. But you don't, and that probably won't change overnight. We can try, though, can't we? We can compromise..."

"Compromise," he agreed softly, and the three syllables fell like hot candle wax on her skin, making them both tremble in response.

He watched their reflection as she pulled her finger slowly from his lips' snare. The sight of that simple action was a wonder in itself, and such a hint of sweetness to come that he didn't know how he was to bear it. She traced the bristled curve of his chin, then swept down the length of his sleeve to take his left hand from her knees once more. She needed both her hands to twist the lever of the nail clippers into position, and captured his fingers between her thighs as she did so. The faint metallic clatter could not conceal his groan, and her muscles locked about him in reflex.

Their foreheads touched in a moment of shared astonishment and mingled breath before she steadied herself for her self-appointed task. He dragged his reluctant fingers from her lap and gave himself up to her, placing his hand in hers to urge her on, trying to expedite the promised delight. She examined him thoughtfully before choosing his smallest finger to begin. The nail was thick and white and looked virtually impenetrable. She had the largest sort of clippers available, yet they barely covered the sharp tip. It would have to do. With a deep breath, she forced the handles closed. Long hours at the gun range had strengthened her fingers considerably, and she thanked God for it now - his nail was like iron, and she could hardly believe he had trusted her to do this. But she had the strength - he knew that - and with a loud report the nail fell to her lap.

She blinked at the sound, recoiling a little. Vincent was apparently unhurt - he didn't flinch, anyhow - so she moved to the next finger before she lost her nerve. This nail was just as hard as the first, but she knew what to expect now, and didn't hesitate. Again she applied the full force of her small fist, and again there was an explosion of sound as his nail sheared off and dropped harmlessly into her lap. Vincent raised no protest, and she moved to finish the last three nails. His thumbnail was the toughest, defying her strength, but after resisting several attempts it too fell to the clippers.

Denuded of its weaponry, his hand looked peculiar. She wasn't sorry for what she had done, but she did regret its necessity. The sight of those five claw tips lying so forlornly against the silk of her nightgown made her feel wistful. She put the clippers down and scooped the nails into her palm, then dropped them into the small jewellery box where she sometimes kept Vincent's crystal. The thought of losing these unique keepsakes - or worse, throwing them out with the rubbish - was horrible.

Uncertain of his reaction to her sentimental impulse, she glanced into the mirror and saw his soft smile, felt its sympathy. She cuddled back against him and took his hand in hers, raising his knuckles to brush them against her cheek. His nails felt rough and ragged against her skin, and he formed a fist to spare her their touch.

"Catherine? You're not finished." He sounded almost playful, as if her trepidation had served to lessen his own.

"Give me a moment," she murmured, pressing her lips to his thumbnail, which was more splintered than the others. "I feel like some awful Delilah. Stripping you of your strength. It's the last thing I want."

"Catherine, you give me more strength than I've had in my entire life. You're giving me courage right now." He could see his jagged thumbnail digging into her bottom lip, felt its prickly caress at his own mouth. "Will you finish?"

She nodded her assent, giving his thumb a last kiss before reaching for the file she'd been using earlier. Its sandpaper surface bore the residue from her own fingernails, and as she held it to his hand, the simple intimacy - the sharing - struck them both. She started again with his smallest nail, filing the roughness away with smooth, steady strokes. The clippers had only removed the tips, and his nails were still long; it took a fair time before his nail drew level with his fingertip. His sensitive ears quivered with each downward scrape, becoming attuned to the rhythmic motion. He relished the friction - the delicious sensation of being manipulated - and when the file began to graze his skin he could not repress a shiver. The very tips of his fingers - normally protected by the sweep of his claws - were almost unbearably tender to the touch. An acrid scent rose to fill his nostrils, like a palpable reflection of the conflagration growing within him. He could not tell at that moment whether it was the touch itself, or where it was leading, that aroused him more.

She shaped the nail into a smooth line, testing the bluntness with her thumb, and he had a strong impression of her mixed feelings; she seemed both satisfied and saddened by her efforts. He sensed that her ambivalence stemmed from a strong reluctance to change him in any way, but whilst the result of her action was certainly unusual - underscoring the idea that what was normal for every other man looked alien on him - he did not feel any dismay for his own sake. The brewing anticipation eclipsed any other consideration.

She moved on to the next nail, beginning anew, and the corrosive scent rose even stronger to make his nose twitch. He turned his face against her bare shoulder and rubbed his stubble across her skin in tandem with each scrape of the file, wanting her to share in the abrasive sensation. As she continued from one nail to the next, her strokes became quicker, more confident...more anxious to be done. Once again, his thumbnail gave her the most trouble; she finally drew his thumb into her mouth to heat and moisten the nail. Her teeth clamped around his knuckle whilst her tongue suckled at his sensitised skin, he could feel the faint pang where his claw had pierced her tongue and knew that he would not hurt her thus again tonight.

Her lips curved in a smile around his thumb before she released him with a soft sound of suction. The file bit into the nail quickly now, and when his fingers clenched into his palm they left no marks. She blew lightly to disperse the powdery residue, making him huff against her skin in reaction. His palm lay quietly in hers - waiting - and when she asked, in a hesitant voice, "Are you certain they'll grow back?" he squeezed her wrist in reassurance. He honestly wasn't sure, and could not have cared less.

As she contemplated his curiously naked hand, he drew her even closer until his right hand found her lap. "The other, Catherine?"

"I...I can't," she whispered.

"It's alright, truly." She wouldn't turn back now, would she? And how could he bear it if she did?

"No, I mean I can't wait." Her eyes were huge and beseeching, staring down into his own. "I can't wait. Please don't make me."

He knew, of course. To his acute senses, her need was as flagrant as his own. He raised his left hand to trace the flushed softness of her cheek, and though instinct told him to use the pads of his fingers, when he saw those strange, blunted nails against her skin, his fingertips pressed into her flesh in a novel way. It was an exploration, deliberately undisciplined.

He had always touched her with reverence, but now he felt freed to touch her as a woman. It was as if he had awaited this liberation since the moment he first found her. His fingertips shivered across the planes of her face and pressed firmly across her brows and down the strong line of her jaw. He caressed the scar that cut down in front of her left ear, and followed the paths of all the other scars, long gone now except in their memories.

Any suspicion he might have had that this was too much, too precipitate, was belied by the way she nudged him for more, rubbing her cheek against his palm and turning her face into his caress. When her head fell back, exposing the fragile line of her neck, he trailed his fingertips down her throat, mesmerised by the jolt of muscle and tendon beneath her skin as she swallowed at his touch. His touch. It was extraordinary...terrifying. It occurred to him that - claws or no claws - he could still rip her throat out even as she sat so trustingly on his lap. With his thumb pressed to one pulse point, and his index finger over the other, the erratic thrum of herheartbeat felt shockingly exposed. He had the strength, and really, nothing had changed. Except that she had inspired him with her faith.

Catherine suspected that the span of his hand about her neck was perhaps the only thing holding her upright. She couldn't remember ever feeling so safe. When her head lolled helplessly to one side, she caught their image in the mirror and was startled by the understated savagery of his hold. But even as she thought it, he burrowed his brow into the crook of her neck in a picture of appeal.

She needed more. His hand fell to her right shoulder, where he tucked his fingers beneath the strap of her gown before coaxing it partway down her arm. They both watched the progress of the drooping material until it stopped at the curve of her breast. Then he traced the delicate line of the bodice to the remaining strap, which he tugged gently over her shoulder. Again, the gown's fall was stopped. He cupped her right breast, insinuating his fingertips between the silk material and her even silkier skin, and drew the bodice down; they both gasped as her nipple pebbled between his passing fingers.

The material was so light it should have fallen to her waist. Instead it was held fast at her left breast where the blood had dried. He moaned in frustration and fresh horror, fingers clenching in her bodice but careful, so careful, not to force it. His right hand, until now so still and patient at her waist, swept the length of her back to wind through her hair, and he eased her back against the support of his arm until she was arched for his scrutiny.

She watched beneath heavy eyelids as he examined her closely. The blood was on the underside of her breast where she could not see, but she could feel the slight pull against her skin. The brush of his furred knuckles against her nipple made her shiver with impatience, but his fingers simply nestled into the groove between breast and bare skin, reluctant to tear at the crusty material. She was tempted to pull it down herself - quick and ruthless, as she might remove a band-aid - but before she could do so, he dipped his head and pressed his hot, open mouth to her breast.

A soft moan escaped her lips, and she clasped his head close, as much for support as for encouragement. The flat of his tongue lay on the bloody material, moistening it until it was forced to release its hold on her; the tip of his nose nuzzled beneath her bare nipple, his uneven huffs of breath making her areola crinkle into definition. When he was finally able to lower the gown to her waist, she arched in his arms, desperate to feel his lips on her skin.

Vincent lifted her as close as possible, licking delicately at the small beads of blood that appeared before taking her nipple into his mouth. The intimacy of it gratified him on some deep, visceral level, his own breast throbbing and clenching in sympathy. He trusted in the shared sensation, letting it guide him. When she cupped her uninjured breast he took the offering gladly, pushing his hand beneath her own so that he could touch herfor himself, whilst his lips traced a fiery path from one peak to the other, and back again. He tested her pliant flesh, kneading gently and learning how she filled his palm and trembled at the brushstroke of his fingertips. But it was the small puncture wounds that drew his most fretful attentions, drawing an unconscious crooning from deep in his throat as he lapped at the marks, trying to soothe her hurts. She tasted hot and wonderful in his mouth.

When he could find the strength to raise his head, he was confronted by his reflection. He shied from the eyes, ebony with want, to the flushed cheeks and swollen mouth, absorbing the strange sight of his own arousal. He wondered whether anyone ever really looked at their reflection, or simply darted from one feature to the next without seeing anything at all. When he turned to face Catherine, she looked much as he did, all glowing skin and trembling lips, and unlike the eyes in the mirror, she met his gaze head on.

He still had a fistful of her hair - could feel the heat pouring off her scalp - and tugged her close until all he could see were her eyes. Their lips met like the shock of a glancing blow. It was like nothing he'd known before. He hardly knew what to do. He found himself murmuring silent endearments into her mouth, and she answered him just as soundlessly, and...and they were kissing. It was as simple and as beautiful as that.

And it was complicated, too. He wanted to be closer. He forced his hand from her breast and enfolded her within the curve of his arm, running his fingers up and down the fragile twist of her spine...turning her into his body. Still she seemed too far away. His hand clamped over the silk-covered curve of her bottom, trying to gather her closer. Her gasp literally stole his breath.

He released her lips, but could not release her; their brows pressed together in a different kiss as they panted for air. Her mouth moved again, not an endearment, but something better: an appeal.

"I need..."

He shushed her tenderly, licking at her top lip through the strange heat haze. "I know." God, he knew. There was a hungry snarl deep in her belly, twisting his own insides. He pried his reluctant fingers from her backside and touched them to her shaking abdomen, soothing the flesh with slow circles of his palm. Her skin was so soft and milky white and inviting. He traced his thumb around the rim of her navel, then pressed within to find how deep it went, enthralled by the sight of that blunt nail disappearing inside her. He pushed her gown down further until it snagged around her hips, and found a soft, barely discernible path of hair dipping below her navel. His fingers followed the trail down, then stroked to and fro across her pelvis as her hips twisted into his touch.

Catherine managed to pull her hands free of the loosened straps, but she still felt bound and dug her fingers hard into her thighs. "Don't tease," she begged, the words whispering through the fall of his hair as he watched his hand move across her skin. She couldn't seem to keep her legs still, her thighs rising again and again against her own restraining grasp. Slung across his lap like a doll, her feet clearing the floor by several inches at least, she had very little leverage and was discovering that she needed it, desperately.

He smiled up into her face. "Not teasing," he said, his tone holding an almost child-like wonder. "Learning."

"Learn faster." She raised a hand to brush the hair from his brow, pressing kisses against his hot skin.

"So impatient," he murmured, before her tongue brushed his open lips. "For me." There wasn't a trace of arrogance in his voice, just that endearing wonder that made her heart catch. He accepted her tongue curiously, then eagerly, suckling at her through the curb of his canines. His taste was sweet and elusive, making her greedy for more.

"Only for you." It was true. She'd never felt anything like this want.

He took his hand from her belly to caress her face. "You would place yourself in my hands."

It was not a question. But she had one. "Whose hands?"

He smiled in acknowledgement. "Your hands, Catherine." She turned into his touch, licking his salty palm and nipping gently at the webbing between thumb and forefinger. His other hand was still caught in her hair, and though his fingers trembled, his arm felt rock solid, as though it could support her effortlessly all night. She didn't doubt it.

The world seemed to be falling away regardless.

She shifted slightly, hardly aware she was doing so. Her toes clenched at the leather cross-ties on his boot, and she used the precarious hold to twist herself across his lap. The leverage was sufficient, but only so far, and she finally had to squeeze her hands beneath her buttocks and lift herself astride him. She heard his harsh intake of breath as her hands sank into his thighs, and then felt the slow exhalation at the back of her neck as she settled.

She lifted her bottom to free her hands from between them, stroking at his flanks. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

She felt the brush of his mane against her bare back as he shook his head. "No. Not that way."

"Then which way?"

Vincent nuzzled at her nape, then released his hold on her hair to wrap both arms about her waist, pulling her up flush against him. "You know which way. I was hurting long before I set foot in here." And he was hurting far more now. She wriggled back against him, obviously trying to accommodate his erection, although it felt more like provocation. "And your own need, added to mine..."

"An exponential effect?" she guessed, caressing the arms that held her. He groaned in agreement, felt her muscles clench at the sound, and groaned again. They were truly circling now, and it was vicious indeed. "You should do something about that."

There was an unmistakably seductive quality to her voice, more blatant than anything he'd ever heard from her before. He found himself craving the sight of her face, and shifted her a little so that he could see around her left shoulder. Her eyes were shut against her own reflection, but as if sensing his stare, she raised her eyelids slowly to meet his gaze. The heat almost hurt his eyes. "Catherine...you're too beautiful."

She shook her head as if she knew better. "No, it's you. It's all you." She lifted a hand to stroke his cheek. "Do you recognise your face?"

He looked at himself, really looked, and whispered, "No."

She smiled. "I see it all the time." She stretched out and pushed at the bottom of the mirror until it tilted forward. He held her hips to steady her, feeling staggered and breathless by the temptation to press her against the vanity...press inside her. She sank back against him before his control was tested too far, and then he saw what she had done.

He groaned.

The mirror provided an all too clear reflection, and the picture of Catherine straddling his lap rocked him on some primal level. Her legs were splayed wide, hiking her nightgown high on her thighs. He pulled it higher.

She was completely open to him, open and vulnerable; the trust implicit in this humbled him. Her heady scent rose, so strong and spicy that he actually started to reel with need, and he hauled her up tight against him, suddenly terrified that he was falling, that he'd reached the inevitable conclusion to this dream.

But she was soft and real in his arms after all. The gentle weight of her breasts rested on his right arm, and four small, scabbing wounds reminded him to keep his hand in a tight fist. As for his left hand - the safe hand, he thought dimly, even as he recognised the basic fallacy of the idea - he laid it across her thigh and tried to absorb the incredible sight without coming apart. Was that really his hand upon her, stroking her skin? He looked like some sort of imposter. The lack of claws only made him look stranger, more brutish. All that fur, an obscene contrast to her smooth, milk-white skin. What on earth had he been thinking?

Catherine watched and waited, captured by the hot brand of his fingers. It was hard to tell how long it was before she became aware of his hesitation, his stillness, as though he didn't dare go further, yet could not drag himself away. Her head dropped back against his shoulder and she coaxed his lips to hers. "Don't doubt us," she said, and took his mouth in a sultry embrace. He fell into her kiss with a groan, heedless when his hand obeyed her unspoken plea and pressed against her at last.

Awareness flooded back to both of them as she seized beneath his hand. His own loins, starved for her and helplessly attuned to her every feeling, jumped in response. He broke from her mouth and stared into the mirror, his lips slack and moist as he watched his hand cup her. That brutish hand. "Hardly...any...difference." The words emerged sluggishly. Of course there was a difference. His sleek golden fur, lost in crisp, doe-brown curls that clung to his fingers and would not let go. He had imagined that she was soft and downy like him, only to find this luxuriant thicket, crisscrossing her flesh like armour. He was unutterably charmed.

He eased his hold on her until his hand barely skimmed the top of her curls, feeling her tremble beneath the whisper of his palm. The merest touch was like a sweet shock as she read his hand, tendrils reaching between his fingers to catch in his own hair. He drew circles across her mound, hypnotised by the sight of individual strands stretching, straining, and finally springing back as he moved beyond their reach. She was gathering like a cloud, humid and dense under the cover of his hand, her flesh plumping beneath to hold his weight. Her lungs were very full and still under his arm's restraint, as if breathing might break the spell.

He cupped her hard, and her breath released in a sudden rush. Her legs started to shift, trying to clasp him closer, and he raised and parted his own thighs to counter her instinctive movement. Her knees were forced wider until the mirror lost sight of them. With a soft moan, she settled slowly, deliberately, into confinement.

Catherine had never seen him look so predatory. The drowsy wonderment was still there, but black want was consuming the blue of his eyes, and he was breathing very hard through his mouth, his bottom canines working restlessly. Her own mouth felt empty and fretful, her tongue testing the air as her body confused one hunger for another. She wanted to turn and take his mouth on hers, but she wanted to watch too.

His hand dragged upwards, his fingers parting her tangled hair, forcing her teeth hard into her bottom lip. He stroked along her plump outer lips, tugging lightly at the slick curls and brushing them aside until she was completely open to him. Two fingertips traced the delicate fringe of her inner lips, following their warp and weft to her very apex, where he squeezed her gently until she sighed. The he swept downwards again, spreading her wide and gathering her moisture on his fingers. "So succulent," he murmured dreamily, and she shivered at the sibilant sound. He explored her thoroughly, testing the surface and pausing for breath at each wrench of her inner muscles, so that she knew he felt it too. His nostrils flared wildly, taking in her scent as she sweltered beneath his caress, and she knew he would taste her before the night was done.

Vincent longed to taste her then and there, but he was becoming dimly aware of the pleasure to be had in postponement. It seemed insane after so many years of deprivation to find that denial was so sweet after all. It was there in the way her head rolled on his shoulder, begging for his mouth, only to pull away with a low growl that sounded uncannily familiar. In the way she flinched beneath his fingertips, shying from the very touch that could assuage the burning. In the way her body arched away from his, pushing at the arm the bound her to him, even though he could sense with every fibre of his over-sensitized flesh how she wanted to be close, and closer still.

That was why she held her breath until she was light-headed and panting, and why he found himself doing the same thing. The suspension of time and body was too exquisite to hurry. He was learning.

But he had to know more.

He circled the entrance to her body with the tip of his middle finger. She was so small, contracting reflexively even as he touched, as though she would deny him admission. She was appealing to every hunting instinct he possessed, an infinitesimal hitch of her hips daring him to try. He closed his mouth over the curve of her shoulder, stilling her challenge, and pressed his finger inside.

She relaxed around him immediately. He released her shoulder with an oh! of surprise at her heat, the intimacy of it. Her face was creased with a smile of sensual satisfaction, and his eyes darted up and down, as though the mirror provided the only proof that this was really happening. "I...I'm touching you. On the inside."

He winced at the obviousness of the remark, at his own dumbfounded tone. But her smile became very gentle, and he could feel a wave of joy within her that had nothing to do with physical pleasure. "You always do, Vincent."

She pulled him in deeper, adoring his wonder, craving the closeness. His finger stroked slowly over the damp, fleshy walls, and she squeezed him tight. His head was cocked to one side, his eyes intent, and she knew he was exercising his empathy, trying to reach inside her even further. "You like this. But it's not the same as..." His voice trailed off as he nudged her with his thumb, eliciting a gasp from both of them. "It's so different," he marvelled.

"It's all the same in the end," she said softly. She shuddered as he traced the smooth muscle at the mouth of her womb. He was reaching high, the heel of his hand creating a delicious pressure.

"Here...you feel me touching you." His fingertip brushed the dimpled centre, just long enough to induce a vague nausea that roiled in his own stomach before dissipating. He frowned. "It's not the same."

"And yet...if you stop, I might die." She grabbed his wrist before he could pull free from her. "Stay. I want you to know me."

The brief discomfort had cleared her head, just a little. She tucked her toes into the tops of his boots, using the leverage to tilt her hips upwards until his finger slid behind her cervix. "There!" she cried, breathless as his hand pressed hard against her pelvic bone. "Oh!...there...you see?" God, was she making any sense? "That place...that's for you."

"For me..."

"You worry...I know you do. But there...that's yours." She relaxed around him, and he felt himself snared, his finger caught in a hot pocket of flesh deep within her. He knew what she was trying to show him. She was trying to prove she could hold him.

He did worry. But the worry was a weak, futile feeling compared to the depth of need she'd ignited. He pulled himself from her body slowly, dragging the crook of his finger along her yielding walls until he emerged with a deliciously moist sound of suction. She started to protest until he stroked upwards, over and over, carding his fingers through her wetness until he could see his fur turn dark and molten. Then he penetrated her once more, two fingers now, and then three, patiently stroking and scissoring her body into eager acquiescence. "It's alright," he whispered, as much for his own reassurance as hers. There was a touch of incredulity in his voice. "It's alright. So open...it's wonderful."

"Yes...wonderful," she agreed. Strange to be stripped so bare before him - a nakedness that had little to do with her lack of clothing - yet to feel so safe, so encompassed by his love.

"Another?" His smallest finger - small! she laughed silently - touched her flesh, stretched taut and wet around his other fingers, with a question.

God, could she? She watched that finger, the first she'd stripped of its defences, as it traced the bond between their bodies. He was as naked as she. "Please," she said, unknowing - and uncaring - whether she could accommodate him, but wanting desperately to try.

She lowered her gaze from the mirror to reality, watching his fingers withdraw from her body until only the tips remained, holding her open. He introduced the last finger slowly, sliding it alongside the others until he was inside her again, her trembling flesh moulding around him. She blinked in surprise to see her body accepting - no, welcoming - his touch so easily. There was no discomfort, just that strange, almost bottomless hunger to be filled by him, to see him claim all the empty, lonely parts of her.

She felt a wash of relief from him, as if something had resolved itself in his mind, and she thought: he's not worried anymore. Exaltation followed as he prowled deep within her, a frank and thorough examination. He was crouching low and intent at her back, giving himself leverage to touch her as he desired, to learn her capacity. Laden as she was, she tried not to move, recognising that even a little tension would communicate itself directly to him...but it was hard not to reel at the sensation of possession. And it was only his fingers.

Vincent could barely repress his exhilaration at her body's consent. It was astonishing to be allowed to touch her so, to feel her yielding on such an elemental level. Listening closely to her with his inner senses, he felt no pain, just a satisfying fullness...a loving cohesion. As for himself, he knew he could drown in her if she only let him. Crawl deep beneath her skin the way she lived within him.

He shivered at the seductive thought of losing himself so, and withdrew his fingers in an automatic move to protect her. Her body tried to refuse his retreat, closing sullenly behind him, and he stroked her wet curls in a soothing caress. "I'm not leaving," he whispered. "I couldn't."

"Then come back," she said, pressing his hand with her own. "To be so close to you...and then so far away..."

"I'm right here," he said, touching her shaking shoulder with his mouth, his tongue.

She laughed a little, a plaintive sound. "You're a thousand miles away. I don't have your empathy. But when you touch me, on the inside, I feel like I'm closer to you. Like I don't need a mirror to prove to me that you're there." She interlaced her fingers with his, squeezing tightly. "I want to be as close as possible. You see how spoilt I am? Already? How greedy? And we haven't even begun."

Feeling her profound yearning, he had to fight tears of joy. "I could spoil you forever. I could. Just knowing you need me as I need you..."

He pressed inside her again, his index and middle fingers only; he could sense how blind she was to her own vulnerability, how she would give him everything he wanted and never count the cost. Already she was letting go, daring him to be free with her, and a dark possessiveness was creeping into his bones. A frenzy to lay claim to her, a frenzy only exacerbated by the warring need to shield her from harm, especially at his own hands.

His thumb lay flush between her damp, delicate lips, caught by their kiss as his fingers were captured inside her. She was so swollen beneath his skin, and he stroked carefully around her, pressing the fragile hood back with unerring gentleness again and again . Each time he felt he must have breached the bounds of trust, there was a flash of memory...a vision of her pushing back the hood of his cloak to reveal his secret self. But Catherine's eyes did not dart from side to side but watched him steadily.

He thumbed her with a feathery touch and felt the tension build. She was no longer shying from sensation but sinking into it, fluttering in his grasp. He grazed over her bud with the blunt sweep of nail she'd so carefully prepared and was staggered by the bolt of pleasure that ripped through them both. She moved with him, then against him, and he felt the tumultuous result of this counterpoint intimately, as if their positions were reversed. Felt how near to pain it was, how frightening...how irresistible.

In the mirror, she looked flushed and fierce and overwhelmingly beautiful. The pulse of her longing was strong in his hand, and he could hear her quickening heartbeat and the hungry grinding of her teeth. He loved this primitive response, loved the way it matched his own hunger. He could sense every nuance of exhilaration and desperation inside her, could feel the way the pleasure was hardly to be borne. Spreading her flesh wide, he rolled the heel of his hand hard against her, and forced her over the edge with a growl of release.

She came in a hot fluid rush, sighing his name. He sensed no diminution of tension; she was bolt upright on his lap, her legs twisted so hard around his that he was almost unseated by her sudden flash of strength. She dug her fingers into her thighs, pushing them down firmly on his. He felt it himself, a fervent need to hold and be held, to ride the aftershock. She continued to convulse in his hand, and when he whispered, "More?" she nodded.

So he found it again, that welter inside her that wound tighter and tighter until he wanted to howl at the sweet agony of it. His breath came in ragged gasps as he struggled to keep pace with her without losing himself to the storm. She hid nothing from him, held nothing back. "Catherine, how you feel...how you make me feel..."

"I want you to know everything!" Oh, but his touch was wonderful, untutored and intuitive, pushing her to extremes she'd never known. Just knowing he was there with her gave her the courage to fall tumbling over the edge again until she splintered like glass.

"Everything..." She shattered him. Only the mirror proved they were whole, and not broken in the wake of pleasure. He hadn't known...

She was loose and liquid against him now, slumped in the cradle of his arm, and when he touched her gently, still hungry for more, she fled back beneath her hooded veil. He recognised her exhausted abeyance, though his clamouring body was slow to accept the lull. "I just...need a moment," she panted softly.

"Anything, anything, you need," he vowed. He could feel her inner muscles clutching at him as though uneasy at the delay. But instinct told him that she would not climax again until he joined with her fully. He drew his fingers from her with slow care, trying not to disturb her recovery, although she fretted at the loss and he felt the pang of it himself. They both stared at his hand, mesmerised by the way his fur was slicked smooth with her wetness, the way his fingers spread to form a glistening web. He inhaled the strong, unique scent, and was unable to resist sucking a finger into his mouth to taste her. "You're so salty," he whispered. So long familiar. He'd know Catherine's taste anywhere. She turned her head to watch him, and he stroked her lips, coaxing them open. "Try," he urged, and she took the offering, suckling the length of his middle finger and dragging the moisture from his fur with her teeth.

She released him slowly, savouring the tangy imprint of her taste on his. "Oh, Vincent...your hands..." As she swept her tongue around her lips, he gathered her face for his kiss, a hot, open-mouthed demand that awakened her relaxed body anew.

"I've never tasted anything so perfect...so right," he said, his voice rasping. "And I want more, Catherine, as much as you can give me and more still..."

She could barely think, such was the need cutting through her; just a crowing happiness as she realised that it was Vincent she could feel inside her, not the whisper of before, but a vivid reality that was growing stronger by the moment. "Vincent, you're everywhere."

That was all he had wanted from the moment he found her: to surround her with love, to pierce every part of her. "Do you remember you once asked me something...very personal?"

Mutual memory of a winter's night surfaced between them. A teasing light in her eyes...an answering gleam in his. Slow, measured steps around the Great Hall. Languid grace...iron restraint. "I asked you...do you dance?"

"Yes. And we danced." An extraordinary, unlooked-for pleasure. He had been terrified. "Catherine, ask me again."

She took his right hand, still fisted beneath her breast after all this time, and stroked the tense knuckles. "Do you dance, Vincent?"

"I do," he vowed, touching her mouth with his once more. "I do, Catherine, I will. Forever, if you'll only have me."

"You know I will." She blushed. "You know everything."

"Almost everything." He reached down to coax her legs together, turning her until she lay pliant across his lap. He took a moment to digest their reflection; waiting, he supposed, for the mirror to crack. But the image held true.

He stood up slowly with his precious charge, and picked his way around the seat to the foot of her bed. The covers lay aside, messy and inviting, and he stared at them in wonder. That he might share this bed with her had never seriously crossed his mind, but there was a prosaic poignancy about those untidy sheets that lent him confidence. He placed her on the bed with loving care, trying to pretend that there was nothing remarkable in the act.

"What a tangle," Catherine said, smiling up into his face. She rose to her knees and lifted her arms high above her head, like a child. He blinked in confusion before he realised that her nightgown was still snarled around her waist. He drew it from her body, careful not to scrape the material against her injured breast, and tossed the gown over the seat where it lay frail and gleaming against the midnight of his cloak.

He took in the strange contrast before sitting back down on the seat, his back to the mirror. Catherine was watching him closely, her fingers clenching in the bedsheets as if itching to undress him. He stared down ruefully at the layers that protected him, and started unknotting the complicated series of leather ties that criss-crossed over his kneepads and boots, faltering a little without all his nails. Her eyes followed every movement, as if she were memorising the sequence. He yanked his boots off and rolled down his thick, woollen socks, waiting for her reaction to his feet; but she evinced no surprise at the sight of the broad, fur-covered arches or the clawed toes.

He rose to his feet and padded to the edge of the bed, where she would be able to see what he was doing. The ties on his quilted grey tunic were simple enough, but his belt buckle had a tricky mechanism that might defy even Catherine's keen eye. He showed her how it worked, letting her fiddle with the fastening whilst he held his breath against the pleasure. His belt fell to the floor in a tangle of metal and leather, and he held very still as she eased her hands beneath his tunic and shrugged it over his shoulders.

Two layers remained. He tugged his pullover off, and waited as Catherine untucked his undershirt, her fingers playing at the densely furred flesh that was revealed. She pushed the garment as high as she could, hardly noticing when he took over the task, such was the wealth of musculature before her. He was...glorious. Compelling. She couldn't resist nuzzling into his torso, breathing in his earthy scent, so male, so distinctively Vincent. The fur across his chest was so thick that she had to bury her fingers deep to find the broad expanse of pectoral muscle, and even deeper to discover the tiny bare patches where his nipples lay. Those small beads of flesh were as sensitive as her own, judging by the leap and pulse of his muscles beneath her hands. He was wearing her white rose above his heart, and she wondered how often he kept it so close. Beneath his breast, his hair was just as dense, but much shorter, leaving his abdominal muscles clearly outlined in the glancing candlelight. His hair had been ruffled in every direction by the removal of his clothing, but it settled beneath the soothing stroke of her hands.

Vincent clasped her to him, revelling in her ardent exploration. Her face was burrowed so close he could feel the gentle flutter of her eyelashes and the curve of her smile. She lay her brow at his breast, and her skin was so hot and damp that he had to brush both her own clinging hair and his from her face before he could watch her unfasten his trousers with shaking fingers. She pushed the soft corduroy down over his hips, and he shifted from one foot to the other until his trousers fell to the floor, moaning when she caught at his rearing, swollen shaft and tucked him gently against her cheek. With a last little kick, he was free of the trousers and naked before her.

"Beautiful," she whispered. Her vision had compressed to this heated, dizzying juncture. He was smooth and steaming against her cheek, and she could sense the frenzy below his skin echoing somewhere deep within her own body. "I can almost tell what it's like for you, Vincent. The urgency..."

"Oh, Catherine!"

"So beautiful," she repeated softly. She stroked the rigid length of him, her head whirling with a strange combination of arousal and protectiveness. He had made such a special gift of himself, dropping all his defences - the wariness of a lifetime - for her sake. And now he was hers to hold and to cherish.

She cupped his testes, rolling their provocative heaviness gently in her hand, feeling the whisper-soft play of golden down across her skin. He was pulling up tight against his body even as she held him, letting her know without words how close he was. The head of his penis was engorged with blood, forcing back his foreskin, and she watched, mesmerised, as pearly
moisture seeped from the tip. She thumbed the fluid over his swollen glans until he gleamed like a ripe fruit, then pressed her mouth over him, unable to resist a taste.

"Catherine!" Vincent's voice was guttural; he could hear the fierce edge of desperation and wondered that he could speak at all. Catherine was kneeling back on her haunches, toes peeping out from beneath her buttocks, head bowed over him almost in prayer except her mouth, her mouth, so hungry and wet and perfect. She had turned her head to one side, just enough that he could see what she was doing, could see the way her lips strained to cover him. The lash of her tongue felt like firelight, hot and elusive, and he caressed her hair beseechingly. "Please...I can't bear it."

She released him slowly. A gleaming bridge of fluid still touched her lips, but the very sight of it made his flesh jerk in reaction, breaking the tenuous connection. She still held him in her hands, not to incite, but to gentle. "The taste of you only makes me starved for more. I want everything at once. You mustn't let me be greedy...I'll devour you if you let me."

"Catherine, if you only knew..."

"I know," she said softly, staring up into his eyes. "Try?"

He wanted to, very much. Her face was upraised to receive his kiss, her lips lush and damp with his essence. He crouched over her and lay his mouth on hers, opening her to the rough flat of his tongue, tasting that strange miracle on her lips. "It's bittersweet," he murmured.

"Mm...like tears." The emptiness inside clamoured for a true joining; it would not be assuaged by this teasing bliss. "Wasted tears, out here in the night. You should be inside me..."

"That's all I'll ever want," he vowed, and Catherine let him go, certain he would follow. As she inched backwards, he moved to fill the space she left, his hands shadowing her heels. One knee sank into the mattress, then the other, until he was crouched on all fours and stalking her with languid grace across the length of the bed. When she could go no further, she surrendered the lead to him, and his bulk was such that she slid effortlessly between his braced arms.

Vincent loomed above her, barely touching her bar the rose that swung between them. Then he tucked his arms beneath hers and covered her body, and she discovered how it felt to be surrounded by him, his hair falling about her face like a gossamer net; it was like finding sanctuary. He cradled her head in his hands, caressing her hot cheeks as if she were the most precious thing in his world, and she folded her arms around him, trying to pull him even closer. His massive shoulders and biceps were taut and trembling with the effort to shield her from his full weight. "You're safe," she whispered. "Just let go and hold me."

Vincent settled slowly upon her, savouring the kiss of her bare skin against every part of him. It was all new, yet strangely familiar, as if he'd been here a thousand times in dreams. Catherine was stroking his mane of hair with gently reverent hands, a startling contrast to the hungry sway of her hips beneath his. He could feel her muscles humming with the strength of her arousal as she lifted against him, trying to coax him inside. There was a savage tremor deep within her, begging for some part of him to hold, and fuelling his desperate need to fill her. He reached down between them and felt how wet and open she was for him, then held his straining erection in fingers slick with her essence and mounted her with possessive intent.

His blunt entry was a shock to both of them; he caught her gasp in his mouth and sighed into her own. "Hold me," he begged, and they rocked together slowly, carefully, as her body stretched to take him. He felt immensely powerful, yet vulnerable also; the insistent rhythm of his own penetration refracted somewhere inside himself, letting him know without words how hard and fast he could enter her body without hurting her. Her legs tightened around him, and he tucked his arm beneath her hips to clasp her even closer, pressing until he was seated fully inside her.

Vincent's head was thrown back, air scudding from his mouth in harsh gasps. Catherine saw a shiver disturb his high cheekbones but reached in vain for his mouth; the difference in their heights was telling now. He stared down at her with hot, black eyes and crouched down to seal their lips until she was hurting with need. She felt the cushioned scrape of claws as he fisted his right hand in her hair and forced their mouths apart. "You...mustn't kiss me now, Catherine," he muttered, a serrated whisper. "I might bite."

She laughed wildly. "And you think I won't?" Nuzzling the damp skin at the base of his throat, she felt giddy with the heat and scent and weight of him. "Ride me hard, Vincent. See if I bite."

He responded with a moan, and ground himself against her, sensing her need for pressure; one small hand had crept down to the base of his spine to hold him fast, as if she feared he might yet run away. He thrust again and again, rotating his hips into hers, searching for a pace and angle to make her reel. Empathy followed wherever she led, and he had to fight the loss of control their mutual rapture wrought; the scorching lash of her pleasure had him lurching in her wake, even as he moved urgently inside her, obeying some mindless imperative of his own.

Catherine hardly knew when she found her climax; it felt as if he had hardly begun to touch her before she was skidding across the surface of some deeply felt release. She clutched at him anxiously, sensing the way he still held himself back for her sake, but he was helpless against the bonds of the flesh - the way they spun the threads of his connection to Catherine into an
indissoluble chain - and he surged back and forth, a fierce shadow as she broke the surface, again and again.

Her cries were harsh and muffled against his shoulder as she grazed him with her teeth and suckled his skin. "Give yourself to me," she whispered, and he reared inside her, his hips jerking compulsively as he crested in a hot, melting wave that left him dazed with euphoria and sobbing her name.

The wash of hot glory stormed through their veins and was slow to dissipate; he couldn't seem to stop moving inside her. Release had brought some measure of relief, but how could he relinquish the heat of her body, the sensual, rhythmic glide of muscle and fur across her skin? "You have me, Catherine. My body, my heart...you've taken me over. There's nothing left but you."

"And you," she murmured, her fingers idling in his hair. "Didn't I say you were everywhere? Don't worry, we'll keep each other safe. We have to."

"We will." He could feel the exhaustion creeping into her body. The legs that had held him so ferociously were now slumped against the sheets. He was too heavy for her. "Catherine, you should sleep."

"Don't leave," she pleaded, her voice blurred with weariness. "Please don't leave."

"How could I possibly let go?" he asked in wonder, but she was already slipping away, and did not hear him. He lingered until he was certain she slept, then withdrew slowly from her warmth. Gathering the tangled sheets around them, he nestled into her side, watching her face in the guttering candlelight. He needed her again, but he could wait.

******************

In the dream, he was inside her, stealing away all the loneliness and longing until there was nothing else but him. They were swaying together in the Great Hall, and she looked up to find the tapestries gone, replaced by vast mirrors. Her reflection smiled down at her, eyes filled with understanding. I wouldn't lie to you, it whispered. Some dreams are real. Wake up and find your love-gift.

Catherine's eyes opened to the amber glow of dawn and the sweet comfort of his body curved protectively around hers. Vincent lay along the length of her back, a shield against the cool morning breeze that drifted in from the balcony; her head lay upon his outstretched arm, and her hand was sheltered in his. He was inside her. "I was dreaming about you," she said softly.

"I know." He had lain awake for hours, cradling her close and content to watch her sleep. Once he had tasted the edges of her dream, though, he had discovered that he could not bear to be apart from her one moment longer; his hour had come round at last. Raising her smooth flank, he had entered her from behind with tender resolve; she was moist and yielding, accepting him with ease in the abandonment of sleep. "I couldn't wait any longer."

They made love slowly, joyously, his hips pressing into the soft curves of her bottom and surging gently to and fro. He wrapped his arm around her waist and caressed her sleep-warmed flesh, kneading her belly and breasts with the languorous rhythm of his penetration. Perspiration had dried on her skin, and he nudged aside her hair to nuzzle at her nape and lick the salty residue. He could feel her pulse quickening at the touch of his mouth and began rocking against her with greater urgency. She led his hand to where their bodies were fused, and he coaxed them both carefully to completion; it was wonderful to feel the confidence to touch this elemental connection between them.

They lay entangled for a long time, and Catherine felt like weeping when he finally withdrew. "It's glorious having you inside me, like the perfect sunrise," she said. Rolling onto her back to face him, she couldn't help but chuckle at her own words. "What am I saying? I hate the sunrise." It was true. Since Vincent had come into her life, the sleeping patterns of a lifetime had adapted to their bond; at night she slept facing the balcony, waiting for him even in sleep, but by dawn her back was to the window, rejecting the sun that kept him from her side.

"You mustn't hate the sunrise, Catherine. Not today." Gazing down into her drowsy green eyes, he tried to absorb the precious reality of this moment.

"Is it really day? And you're here with me?"

"I'm here. There's not a nightingale to be heard. Just the din of a million New Yorkers shaking off their bedclothes and clamouring for coffee."

"Mm, coffee," she said dreamily, making him smile. The thought of caffeine seemed to prod her memory, and a flash of anxiety crossed her face. "Oh, Vincent, what about Father? He'll be so worried when you don't come home."

"Ssh," he whispered, brushing her furrowed brow with a kiss. "As far as my family knows, I'm miles beneath the city. I had planned to go away, to a nameless river I know..."

"You...were leaving?"

"Yes. Just for a while." Running away had seemed like a good idea, and he choked to think of the joy he would have missed had he obeyed that instinct to flee. "After I spoke to you last night, I couldn't go. I tried, I really did, but something kept pulling me back to you."

"I'm glad." She nuzzled at his breast, pressing close until she could hear his heart. "So fast..."

"For you, Catherine. I don't think it could beat anymore without you." He smoothed his fingers through her tousled hair, then brushed the sleep from her eyes. She blinked up at him lazily before her eyes widened in astonishment. "Vincent, your nails. They've all grown back!"

"As good as new. Do you mind?"

"Mind? I'm so relieved." She pressed a fervent kiss against his fingers before tucking his knuckles against her cheek. "But it's amazing. How...when...?"

"You'll have to watch over me as I sleep to learn all my secrets." She could hardly believe he was smiling about it. She could feel the cool, backward sweep of his nails along her cheekbone, and then the warm stroke of his palm down to her heart. Were these truly the hands he had wept over just last night?

His mood sombred as he was reminded of the hurt he had caused, and he gathered her marked breast in his hand as if it were a wounded bird. Catherine covered his hand with her own, soothing his infinitesimal tremor. "Don't dwell on it so, Vincent. Nothing's perfect, of course, not even us. And it's a good thing, too. How else would we know when we were happy?"

"And you are happy, aren't you?" He could sense the heart-felt joy she took in his arms. "As happy as I am."

"It's not such a difficult love, is it?" she asked, smiling.

"No." As she lifted her hand to brush the hair from his face, he made himself release her breast and let go of the regret. He rubbed her belly gently and touched her damp floss of curls. "You're sore."

"I'm not," she said, shaking her head with vehemence. He looked at her steadily, and she gave up. It was impossible to win these arguments. "Alright. Yes, I'm sore." Grinning up at him, she continued, "But it's a good sore."

He acknowledged her irrepressibility with a gentle kiss; it was hard to find humour in her discomfort, but her buoyant mood was contagious. "A warm bath might help relieve the tenderness."

With a laugh, she wrapped her arm around him and pulled him down into her embrace. "Oh, Vincent, it's Saturday, thank goodness, and we've got all day to soak in the bath if we want to. Lord knows, we probably need it! But right now I just want to lie here in your arms and enjoy this sweet miracle."

He rolled onto his back, bringing her with him. "It is a miracle," he whispered. He caught a glimpse of them in the mirror, and remembered another old superstition: a woman might look in a glass by candlelight and see the face of her future mate. Perhaps Catherine had heard of it. He remembered her words: these hands are my hands. And they would never let her go.

The mirror caught Catherine's eye also, and she wondered idly what Vincent would think when he saw the wreath of bruises around his neck. She was struck anew by the incongruity of the vanity; its dark hues and antique lines would never look at home in her apartment. "Do you think there's room in your chamber for a dressing table, Vincent?"

He stroked her hair. "Of course, Catherine."

"That's good. I couldn't bear to part with it," she said softly.